Only months ago, merely uttering in public the name of the leader, Mir Hussein Moussavi, could have led to arrest; a newspaper’s printing it invited almost certain shutdown.
Last week, however, calls for the release of Mr. Moussavi and another prominent opposition leader, Mehdi Karroubi, echoed over the campus of Shahid Behesti University in Tehran, shouted by students who carried a green banner, the color of the 2009 anti-government protests that propelled both men, presidential candidates at the time, into their opposition roles — and ultimately house arrest.
On Tuesday nine prominent politicians, activists and journalists wrote an open letter to Mr. Rouhani asking him to take measures to lift the house arrests of Mr. Moussavi and Mr. Karroubi. The letter, featured prominently on the front page of the reformist newspaper Etemaad, warned him “not to remain entrapped in the past,” and encouraged him to “enhance national unity.”
For Mr. Rouhani, a self-described centrist who was elected on a promise not just of solving the nuclear crisis but also easing restrictions on personal freedoms, the calls for the men’s release are posing a major domestic test. While not wanting to disappoint his reformist supporters, he also needs to be careful not to more thoroughly alienate powerful hard-liners who have already started to criticize his nuclear policy, which resulted in a temporary deal with the West.
After losing to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a 2009 presidential election widely regarded as fraudulent, Mr. Moussavi, a former prime minister, and Mr. Karroubi, a former head of Parliament, refused to accept the vote outcome and led a monthslong uprising on the streets of Tehran and other major cities.
While hundreds of politicians, journalists and ordinary citizens were arrested in the violent suppression of the protests — and sentenced in televised, Stalinist show trials — the two former presidential candidates remained free. But after they urged their supporters to organize protests in support of the Arab spring movement in 2011, both men and Mr. Moussavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, were placed under house arrest. Since then only direct relatives have managed to contact them.
But the surprise election of Mr. Rouhani in June and the temporary nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers have changed the political dynamic in Iran, giving room to long-silenced voices to ask for domestic changes.
“I am no longer afraid to shout slogans,” said Mohammad, 20, a philosophy student, as he joined others who called for the release of political prisoners on the campus grounds. “The atmosphere in Iran has changed,” he said, although he refused to give his family name out of fear of the security forces. “Now we want to see results of those changes.”
In response, hard-liners in recent weeks have been using Friday prayer venues and state news media to stress how much “Islamic leniency” has been shown toward both men, with key prayer leaders calling for the execution of “the heads of the 2009 sedition,” as they call Mr. Moussavi and Mr. Karroubi.
Last weekend, as students representing both camps shouted for the release of the prisoners while others called for their execution, Mr. Rouhani, speaking on the occasion of student day, took the middle ground.
“The government is committed to all the promises it has made to the people; but to achieve our goals, we need internal consensus,” he said, hinting that his government alone is not able to sign off on the release.
Officially, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, which is headed by Mr. Rouhani, is in charge of the house arrests dossier. But Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is expected to have the final say in any release, activists say.